Gold Record is the forthcoming LP from Bill Callahan, following in (relatively) quick succession from last year’s wonderful return from the wilderness Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. Protest Song is the fourth single to drop in just about as many weeks and is the pick of the bunch so far.
It’s a slow, bluesy meditation on current politics, wherein the narrator, after a hard day’s work, is protesting the phony ‘protest singer’ he sees on TV: “Oh my God/ His songs are lies”. I guess it’s not hard to guess who he might be referring to on American telly, singing the praises of far right madness. He goes further in the chorus where he croons: “I protest his protest song/ I’d vote for Satan if he said it was wrong.”
But there’s a repetitive comeback refrain from our television protester too: “Step aside son/ or you’re going to get hurt” – uncannily mirroring recent events in the BLM movement in the U.S.A., especially Portland. For the pronunciation of “hurt”, Callahan puts a not-so-subtle Southern accent on it, summing up the redneck bluster of the “might equals right” of the Republican Party.
Bill Callahan continues to surprise in his career journey, starting out as a noisy bedroom producer blasting out songs of angst and crippling self-doubt, to becoming a moderately successful indie rock star, and now balladeer extraordinaire. A turn to politics expresses a concern for others that can only come from a mature outward focus now that his internal demons have been long ago dispatched. This career trajectory has been fascinating to observe over the decades, and the music is as good as ever.
Protest Song is a Callahan masterclass in minimalistic songwriting. The instrumentation is so stripped back, the song is hardly there. But although it may be one of the quietest protest songs ever recorded, the implications of the simple lyrics and slight intonations of his voice pack a hefty punch.